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I'm probably the only girl in the world who hates the month of December. I know Christmas comes in December, but so what? Every bad, awful thing that's ever happened in my family has happened in December. Like when I was five and Daddy died in an accident at the steel mill just two weeks before Christmas and we had to move to Tennessee and live with Grandma. And when I was eight and Mom was told in the first week of December she had rheumatoid arthritis and so she couldn't work and had to set up her own at-home business. And when I was almost fourteen, my sister, Briana, ran away from home on a cold December Saturday, just after school let out for the holiday break.
Mom said later, "I should have seen it coming."
But neither of us had.
Our mother always said that Briana marched to the beat of a different drummer, which I totally got because I'm in the marching band at school and staying in step is a must. When she was just sixteen, Bree took off with Jerry Stevens, a nineteen-year-old guy Mom called "worthless, hateful and without a lick of sense," but that Bree swore she loved more than anything. Bree and Mom had lots of fights about Bree dating Jerry, and then on a Saturday morning when Mom had driven into town to Pruitt's Food Mart for groceries, Bree comes down the stairs with two suitcases and a duffel bag and drops them at the front door.
"Where you going?" I ask. I'm sprawled on the sofa watching a cartoon and eating Cheetos. I like the old cartoons; plus, it's a good way to spend a Saturday until Mom makes me do my chores, which wasn't going to happen until she came home from the store. My fingers are covered with orange Cheetos dust and I lick them.
Bree scowls. "That's disgusting." She looks out the high glass window of the door. "I'm leaving."
"Me and Jerry are going to find jobs."
"You don't know anyone in Los Angeles," I remind her. We live in farm country, in Duncanville, a small town in middle Tennessee, three hours from Nashville, only forty minutes from Chattanooga, which I guess Bree figures are both too close to home.
"We're going clear across country, seeing everything there is to see on the way. When we get to Hollywood, we'll get a place of our own and be happy forever." Her green eyes sparkle.
"Mom's not going to let you go." Bree had taken off twice before and Mom had gotten the sheriff to fetch her home.
"It's different this time."
"I left a letter in my room. It explains everything."
"What about school?"
"I'm finished with school. I can quit if I want to. You finish school."
A horn honks outside and Bree throws open the door and grabs her bags. "I'm out of here."
I follow her onto the front porch, stop when I see Jerry's pickup in our dirt driveway. He jumps out, hugs Bree and tosses her bags into the open bed. "What did you pack, girl? The kitchen sink?" He never looks my way.
Bree laughs and kisses him. She says to me, "Go inside, Sissy."
I'm still wearing my sleep T-shirt and my legs and feet are bare. The cold has sliced right through me and frozen me to the porch.
Bree shoots Jerry an apologetic look, runs back and puts her arms around me. "It'll be all right, Sissy. I know what I'm doing."
I feel all hollow, scared too. I don't want my sister to leave.
"I'll send you postcards."
I stand still, my arms glued to my sides, fighting hard not to cry. I'm careful not to touch her with my disgusting orange fingers. "Why do you want to leave?"
"I don't want to be stuck in this place forever. This is my chance to go places with someone I love and who loves me."
The truck's horn beeps and I see Jerry scowling from behind the wheel. Bree breaks away. "I can't keep Jerry waiting." She bounds off the porch, runs to the truck, gets inside and rolls down the window. She calls out, "Tell Mom not to worry. I know what I want. I love you."
My voice is stuck in my throat and I can't say anything. I stand on the porch shivering and watch them drive away. And find another reason to hate December.
When Mom comes home, I tell her what's happened and we go up to Bree's room together. The usually messy bedroom is neat and clean. The bed's made up with the old quilt Grandma sewed before she died and the closet holds only old summer T's and empty hangers. Mom picks up the letter propped on Bree's pillow. As I watch her stiffened fingers rip open the envelope, I cry. "Shush," she says, her eyes darting over the page.
"Wh-what's it say?"
"She and Jerry are getting married."
"Call the sheriff, Mom. You can stop them."
"Why? Once they're married, I have no say in her life."
"She's sixteen, Susanna. You can't stop a river from flowing downstream, and I can't stop Bree from going her own way. I should have seen it coming."
Shock waves roll over me. Briana is gone. Really and truly gone.
Mom gets to her feet and her orthopedic shoes shuffle on the wood floor. "Come on now and help me bring in the groceries."
Bring in the groceries? How can she think about groceries when her daughter, my only sister, has just run off to get married to a guy Mom hates? I swipe at my eyes. Mom puts her arm around my shoulder. "She'll be back, Sissy."
"When he leaves her."
"But if they're married . . ."
"It's a lot easier to break promises than to keep them," Mom says. Her face looks sad. I still can't believe she isn't going to do anything to make Bree come back. "Come on now."
Mom shuts Bree's bedroom door behind us and we go downstairs.
From the Hardcover edition.